Bell's theorem of Aboriginal art: it's a white thing

Author:Brisbane Institute
Date: 11 November 2003

Richard Bell generated national controversy after winning this year's Indigenous Art Award with his Scientia E. Metaphysica by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words 'White Girls Can't Hump' to the awards ceremony. When some politicians demanded the award be withdrawn, the artist responded by pointing to the racism suffered by Aboriginal people on a daily basis and, to his role as an artist who questions the nature of Aboriginal art today ... which he outlines here.

Richard Bell has exhibited from London to Dusseldorf to the National Gallery in Canberra. Many of his works, which have embraced a wide range of styles, deal with the treatment of Aboriginal people after European settlement.

Author's note: This paper has been written to articulate some thoughts on this subject that may not yet be in the public domain. I am the primary source for most of the information gathered (often through personal experience or discussions with numerous people). I must say here that I am not an academic. Consequently, the style and tone chops and changes. It will be conversational, playful, serious, tongue in cheek, moralistic, tolerant, sermonistic and informative.

Aboriginal Art has become a product of the times. A commodity. The result of a concerted and sustained marketing strategy, albeit, one that has been loose and uncoordinated. There is no Aboriginal Art Industry. There is, however, an industry that caters for Aboriginal Art. The key players in that industry are not Aboriginal. They are mostly White people whose areas of expertise are in the fields of anthropology and 'Western Art'. It will be shown here how key issues inter-relate to produce the phenomenon called Aboriginal Art and how those issues conspire to condemn it to non-Aboriginal control.

During the last century and a quarter Western Art has evolved into an elaborate, sophisticated and complex system. This system supplies venues (museums, galleries, etc), teaching facilities (art education institutions, drawing classes, etc) and referees (art critics). It offers huge rewards for the chosen few elite players in the game (including artists, curators, art critics, art dealers and even patrons). This arrangement is not dissimilar to modern spectator sports. It is also not unlike ancient religions - substitute Gods, sacrificial offerings, High Priests, etc. Like some voracious ancient God, Western Art devours all offerings at will. Sometimes the digestion will be slow and painful. However, it is resilient and will inexorably continue on its pre-ordained path - to analyse and pigeonhole everything.

Western Art is the product of Western Europeans and their colonial offspring. It imposes and perpetuates superiority over art produced in other parts of the world. The African Masks copied by Picasso are an example. Westerners drooled at Picasso's originality - to copy the African artists while simultaneously ignoring the genius of the Africans.

Any new 'art movement' is, after the requisite hoopla and hype, named and given an ISM, that is duly attached to the end of a noun, e.g.. 'Modernism'. This 'nounism' doesn't transfer to non-Western art. Words like primitive, ethnographic, provincialist or folk-art suffice. Below the isms are 'Schools'. A noun followed by School. For example, the Heidelberg School. Aboriginal Art is considered a 'movement' and as yet has not graduated to ism status by being 'named'. I shall do so now. I name Aboriginal Art Hierowism. It is the modern version of hieroglyphics. As there is always controversy, I think it's appropriate. But can an 'unqualified Black' name an Art Movement?

Prior to the 20th Century, art produced by Westerners from former colonies was not considered to be up to the standard of art produced by resident Europeans. The North Americans demanded, and begrudgingly attained, parity with their European cousins. In fact, the axis of power has actually shifted away from Paris to New York where American artists are at the forefront of Western Art today. Not so their antipodean counterparts who struggle with what Terry Smith, in his 1974 article of the same name, has called The Provincialism Problem. This has produced a cultural cringe of massive proportions that requires artists from provincial outposts to aspire merely to mediocrity.

Provincialism permeates most levels of Australian society. Consequently, it weighs heavily on the industry catering for the art of Aboriginal Australians and renders most of those involved in that industry unworthy of the roles they have given themselves. I believe it is unwise to market Aboriginal Art from the Western Art aesthetic and attach an Aboriginal 'Spirituality' (an exploitative tactic that suggests that the purchaser can buy some). Perhaps it would be wiser to market this form of art from a purely Western construct. Demand that it be seen for what it is - as being among the world's best examples of Abstract Expressionism. Ditch the pretence of spirituality that consigns the art to ethnography and its attendant 'glass ceiling'. Ditch the cultural cringe and insert the art at the level of the best in western art avoiding the provincialism trap.

Spirituality and Ethnocentricity

There is no doubt that attaching 'Spirituality' during a sale of Aboriginal Art helps greatly in closing a deal. Western dissatisfaction with Christianity since the 1960s has sharpened focus in this area. However, important matters haven't been given due consideration. Matters such as:
The number of artists holding the knowledge is declining rapidly and younger people are reluctant to take up the 'Old Ways'.
Given the above, a dying, soon dead, culture is being raked over.
The image of the 'Noble Savage' (from whence comes the spirituality) implies a position of racial superiority (consciously or not).
It is not necessary to invoke spirituality when promoting artists as individuals. It is a matter of who they are, where they're from, what they know, what they've done. These things become crucial.
That a proliferation of white experts is belittling the people who own the culture. For example, the 'Named White Expert' is far better known than the mostly 'Unnamed' Aboriginal artists from the famous Papunya School of painters.
That the fact that the lack of Aboriginal input into areas of concern is continually overlooked has created the feeling that the culture is being stolen, etc.

Other important issues arise out of the 'Ethnographic' approach to Aboriginal Art. Anthropologists play a crucial role in the interpretation of Aboriginal Art. Their approach is, by definition, ethnographic and its classification system fits cozily into Ethnographic Art. Consider the classification of 'Urban Aboriginal Art'. This is the work of people descended from the original owners of the heavily populated areas of the continent. Through a brutal colonisation process much of the culture has disappeared. However, what has survived is important. The Dreamtime is the past, the present and the future. The urban artists are still telling dreamtime stories, albeit, contemporary ones. The Dreamings (of the favoured 'real Aborigines' from the least settled areas) actually pass deep into Urban territories. In short, the Dreamings cannot be complete without reciprocity between the supposed 'real' Aboriginals of the North and the supposed 'unreal' or inauthentic Aboriginals of the South. Moreover, many urban artists have rejected the ethno-classification of Aboriginal Art to the extent they don't participate in Aboriginal shows. They see themselves as artists - not as Aboriginal artists.

The real problem arises out of the very nature of Western Art. Westerners need to sort and categorize everything in order to make sense of the World. That they do so in an ethnocentric manner is academic. The world of music is not dominated by Western Classical music. Different music styles stand alongside each other with extensive cross-fertilisation from different cultures. Not so in visual art.

A prolific artist of international standing, Richard Bell was born in Charleville, Queensland, from the Kimilaroi tribe. Exhibiting worldwide, Richard has generated broad popularity for his vivid, complex canvasses. Creating paintings with multiple significance, Richard responds to the issues of discrimination, oppression and frustrations felt by Aboriginal artists.